How can workplaces achieve the right balance between work and play?

 —  Article by Ram Srinivasan
play meets work in the modern office
Image credit: Shutterstock

In recent years companies have been trying to inject more of the fun factor into the workplace.

Think slides instead of stairs, swings to help creative ideas flow, games rooms packed with lunchtime entertainment options and even champagne buttons on desks for workers in a new London office.

Indeed, what initially started out as a tech sector trend to create spaces which better reflected their brand and encouraged employees to think outside of the box, has gone mainstream. Yet while these modern office perks may provide a unique talking point in the office – and even a unique selling point for potential employees, some companies are struggling to strike the right balance between work and play.

“Many of them are questioning the value of these spaces and they are finding what worked for the likes of Google, may not work for them,” says Ram Srinivasan, Vice President and Head Consulting, JLL Canada. “And what’s the reason for this? Culture. All offices need informal spaces for employees to take a break yet not every office needs a pool table.”

What’s behind the playful office?

Office design has evolved rapidly in the last few decades. Traditional office spaces reflected the factory floor and the assembly line model. HBR’s Research during the 1980s indicated 85 percent of people needed spaces to concentrate and focus. Workplaces followed suit and the solution of the day was cellular workspaces, and cubicles.

Through the early to late 1990s, business became more agile. The need for cross-functional collaboration, global connectivity and teamwork increased. A workplace that over-emphasized individual delivery, no longer worked. Workplaces that favored collaboration began producing better results.

The next wave of research at the turn of century, hinted at two things: highly engaged employees were more productive and that Millennials, motivated by a different value system, would form a significant part of the workforce. Companies began to scramble for solutions to engage people, boost productivity and attract the millennial talent pool.

“Injecting a sense of play into the workplace was seen as the answer,” explains Srinivasan. “Office space designs have taken unbridled inspiration from the success of companies such as Google, and their workplaces. Now they’ve become more creative as companies look to stand out from the crowd and not all have been successful. For some employees in open plan offices, playful elements can actually be more of a distraction that hinder productivity.”

Achieving the right mix

Workplace surveys such as Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work suggest that the top companies are successful because their workplaces include a mix of work and play. But a closer look tells a very different story, Srinivasan believes.

“Correlation does not necessarily mean causation and this could not be more true in the context of the workplace and its impact,” he says. “Work environments reflect culture, they do not create culture. Employees of the top rated companies on Glassdoor’s survey cite career progression, learning and openness of teams with the most repeated theme, culture. The workplace and its elements of play hardly warranted a mention.”

Yet that’s not to say that these play elements were not relevant. “Good design is invisible,” explains Michelle McLaughlin, Client Development, Project and Development Services, JLL Canada. “Good design enables users, it is purposeful and thoughtful. Good workplace design can articulate the company’s core values, help reflect and express its culture. Organizations that integrate culture first design principles and workplaces that articulate philosophies and values are more likely to meet with success.”

Google’s workplace, for example, reflects its ambition “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world”. Unorthodox workplaces reflect their unorthodox thinking but companies can’t simply replicate a Google-like workplace and expect Google-like results. Instead, the workplace needs to reflect what the organization and its people desire, according to McLaughlin.

Recent research suggests people are concerned more about workplace privacy, ability to concentrate without distraction, comfortable furniture and less about the availability of beer taps and ping-pong tables.

For companies, that poses the question of how much space and budget should be devoted to break-out areas and settings that encourage play. There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all model to securing the right combination.

“Finding the right balance of elements that support work along with those that allow relaxation and fun, requires deliberate examination of each individual company,” concludes Srinivasan. “The sweet spot, is very likely where the workplace reflects the organization’s culture.”

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